Women, Collective Action, and Climate Change: In Search of Our Unsung Heroines
In the 21st century, climate change is no longer solely a scientific issue, but a political one. It is a question of privilege and power, inequality and reciprocity, and ultimately of transnational and intergenerational justice. Climate disruption has already seriously impacted marginalised groups, ranging from indigenous Inuit and Saami communities across the Arctic, to low-income immigrant women throughout Houston and Miami. With dwindling resources and a warming atmosphere, the burden continuously falls on those who have contributed the least to global emissions yet suffered the most under capitalist market paradigms. Our patriarchal and colonial histories have designed infrastructure that is not only destroying our capacity for collective prosperity but has also built domestic and international institutions that favour those who are already ahead. With a challenge of such a great scale, affecting all aspects of production, consumption, and social equity, our only promising climate solutions lie in collective action.
This type of action is unique. Instead of glorifying one figurehead, collective action mobilises people around common and shared concerns, empowering group-based agency devoid of a single leader. Collective action has the capacity to challenge our social norms and behaviours: an integral kind of strategy if we are to plummet emissions and avoid climate chaos. Women, historically, have been drivers of this type of political movement. Serving as the backbone of collective long-term health interests within their communities, women are systemically more likely than men to enact and pursue policies with widespread community benefits. Today more than ever, these collective action strategies are needed to drive the transition to a low-carbon society. Capitalism, the economic paradigm largely responsible for our climate crisis, has operated as gender-blind for centuries. Through commodifying indispensable ecosystem services and ignoring gendered forms of unpaid and underappreciated labour, global capitalist institutions from the World Trade Organisation to the International Monetary Fund have managed to skyrocket greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously subjugating both women and indigenous communities. Although often confined by these patriarchal institutions and restricted under gendered ideas of capital, women still historically have been the largest and most successful organisers of collective action.
We see examples of female-led collective action initiatives throughout time and space, and across both social and environmental justice movements. In 2013, three black female organisers, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi created what today is known as the Black Lives Matter movement. Now a global project with over fourty chapters, Black Lives Matter has mobilised thousands of community activists and policy-makers to serve as catalysts of resistance to police brutality, reaffirming of the dangers of anti-black racism throughout the United States and the world. In the 1970’s in Love Canal, New York, similar mobilisation was seen as working-class mothers retaliated against the high rate of birth defects and miscarriages seen in their children caused by toxic waste dumping. Their action led to international coverage, eventually resulting in the most comprehensive piece of American environmental justice legislation to date: The Superfund Act of 1980. Behind these fundamental actions towards just policy were the mothers, sisters, and caretakers who encompass the unknown faces of collective action that have delivered and continue to work towards tangible mechanisms of institutionalised justice and reciprocity.
In an age of climate clocks ticking, we must learn from our unsung female leaders and their cases of successful collective action. Tackling climate requires far more than one person, nation or corporation: it requires the collective and communal understanding that a transition to a low-carbon society is ultimately a transition towards economic, social, and environmental justice.